Is it up or down from here?
Think of a physical rollercoaster for a moment. Now, I will be the first to admit – I am terrified of rollercoasters, and rollercoasters are a trigger for my anxiety, but for this article rollercoasters provide the best analogy. If someone invites me to the fair or amusement park, I will be the first to hold everyone’s belongings and take the best pictures of others enjoying the rollercoaster while cheering them on. On these rollercoasters, most of us can see how the rollercoaster ends. We can see tons of other people getting off, chatting and laughing from the fun, and enjoying the ups and downs that they experienced in the last less than two minutes. After all, for a lot of people the downs are what makes these rollercoasters so worth the thrill.
But with the rollercoaster of life, there is likely a steep drop down when you hear “it is cancer,” and it often becomes very easy to see the continuous downs that follow and forget that there are, and there will be, ups. When comparing “life” rollercoasters to physical rollercoasters, it is worth pointing out that the average physical rollercoaster lasts significantly shorter than the life rollercoaster. This fortunately, and unfortunately, means in life we will experience more ups and downs than we do on a less than two-minute thrill ride.
I do not know what your rollercoaster looks like, but I am honored to share my experience in hopes that you will confidently know you are not alone. Think about it: how many times have you seen a rollercoaster with only one rider? I cannot recall a single time where I watched someone ride a rollercoaster alone, and it is my hope that you never feel alone, whether you are experiencing ups or downs. I will share some of my perspective, and I completely understand our perspectives might look entirely different, but for the sake of not being alone, here goes some vulnerability…
A little bit about me: I have a strong type A personality, and when it comes to enneagrams, there is no denying that I am a 3 at my core. With both of these characteristics, I can say with full conviction that patience is not natural nor something that comes easy for me, and the fear of the unknown, and not knowing how to plan for it, haunts me. As I write this, I am currently experiencing, what I consider, a down. If you and I have not talked in the past week, you would not know I am on an airplane flying home from a cancer center anxiously waiting for PET scan results and learning the next steps of my husband’s treatment plan. The person beside me on this plane may think I am flying to go on an exotic or relaxing vacation! To stick with the rollercoaster theme, you might be going on the roller coaster for a tenth time, and the person behind you might be just handing over their first ticket to the fair attendant. One thing that helps me is to imagine that everyone I meet is experiencing a down slope of their rollercoaster. When recognizing that the people we meet may be experiencing their worst moment/day/week/year, it allows our perspectives to shift. To add to the vulnerability here, I will share parts of my perspective…
When I am experiencing my downs, it is easy to think of things that cancer has taken from me: health, career, friendships that did not survive this season, and fertility, to get the list started. It is so easy to feel drenched by these changes, and while I recognize, and agree, it is important to acknowledge the hurt, it does not serve me to live under a cloud that seems to never stop raining. These are the times when it is beneficial for me to pull out my own journal documenting the ups and reflect on what cancer has given me: opportunities for strengthened relationships physically and spiritually, precious memories, gratitude, and shifts in my own perspectives.
Tip: When you are experiencing your ups, write out what they are and how you feel while experiencing them. For me, journaling in a physical notebook works best. For you, it may be helpful to have a digital journal or a different safe place to process these emotions. I am full of recommendations and resources, and I would never recommend something I have not already tried for myself. Trust me, try journaling once.
Back to the rollercoaster visual – some rollercoasters take you through tunnels where it seems like the darkness will never end. If, and when, you find yourself on one of those rollercoasters, please remember there is always light at the end of the tunnel. While on the ride, sometimes you have to bring the light in or make your own light, but it is important to not wait until the end to search for that light. When going through life on autopilot and just waiting for light at the end of the tunnel, it can be easy to focus on the downs and difficult to see the ups. I acknowledge my current down sucks, but I also find comfort from my support system, and in knowing that we will soon experience ups regardless of how the results of our current circumstance turn out. While on your rollercoaster ride, especially during the downs, I challenge you to use your light to anticipate, and look forward to, the ups ahead.
Just as there is not only one rollercoaster at the fair or amusement park, this also means there is not only one rollercoaster in life. Unfortunate events, crisis, and trauma not only happen to us, but to those around us also. We never know if the person sitting next to us is going up or down on their rollercoaster. And it is not our responsibility, or privilege, to know. The same also remains true for us, it is not our responsibility to let others know if we are experiencing ups or downs. It is also important to note that it is totally fine if this is what works for you — I tend to share my ups and downs with others to offer and/or receive support, and that serves a purpose for me. This may not ring true for you, and that is okay!
Another thing that has served me, especially during my downs (I share in hopes to encourage you to try this), is requesting, and accepting, support. And not the backhanded support. Not the “I will be praying, let me know if there is anything you need…” and then when I think of what I might need, I search to find the person has disappeared or is unable to follow through with an offer. No, the support for me looks like actual thoughts and prayers, meals, hugs, gift card/donations, memory making with my family, people checking in, brainstorming ideas, childcare, a supportive boss or coworker stepping in and covering some of my work (without contempt) while I need to take days off, and enjoying time together with company without the topic of cancer coming up, just to name a few. That support may look different for you, and I encourage you to explore what supports you — and to do more of that. It is also important for us to remember the various ways to give support when we have the privilege to offer support.
As a final take away, actually use the tip to jot down one up that you had this past month so the next time you are experiencing a down, you can still find the joy on your rollercoaster ride.